As We Remain at Home the Spirit of Joseph Papp’s Free Theater Lives on

When I was a student at St Joseph’s College on Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn, a Shakespeare professor mentioned that a fellow named Joseph Papp had assembled actors who would perform a season of plays at The Heckshire Theater on 5th Avenue and104th Street in Spanish Harlem. And they were free. 

That  evening, my friend Suzanne and I took the Lex over to the city, walked down to 5th Avenue, and The Heckshire (today it’s El Museo del Barrio), passed a wicker basket at the door for contributions, and sat a few rows up in a  theater in the round. The lights darkened, and then on the floor appeared a red spot. What looked like a bundle of rags rose slowly, and spoke in a ragged voice:   

“Now is the winter of our discontent…”  We had not read Richard the Third, nor had heard of the actor making his debut on a New York stage, George C Scott. Excited, charmed by Richard’s wicked humor, we returned for a second time. Since then I have read and taught the play, enjoyed Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, and years later, saw my son Jonathan play Richard as an Andover student.  

We returned later that year for the comedy, As You Like It: Scott was Jacques. When he spoke “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy in his dry voice, we all stood and applauded. The final play of the season was Antony and Cleopatra, played without set or props: Scott as Antony in black slacks and grey shirt, Cleopatra (his then-wife Colleen Dewhurst) in long grey skirt and black top.  

Suzanne and I got there early for that one, and grabbed a front row seat (by that time I was sure Scott knew I was there.) I’m certain we cried when Antony lay in Cleopatra’s arms: “I am dying, Egypt, dying.”

I have discovered, with great pleasure, that as we remain at home the spirit of Joseph Papp’s free theater lives: We have watched two plays from The Irish Repertory Theater,¨ A Touch of the Poet, by Eugene O’Neil, and comedian and mime Bill Irwin on Samuel Becket. As we Brooklynites used to say, “free for nothing,” although donations are invited — Papp’s wicker basket.  

In April, just at the time we were beginning to realize that theaters might not open for a while, there was on YouTube A Bolero from New York: NY Philharmonic Musicians Send Musical Tribute to Healthcare Workers.  And lo, each musician, from their home, play a rollicking Bolero. The treat continues to be available. How Joseph Papp would grin with pleasure as even very young people can enjoy the concert and appreciate individual instruments. Do listen.

The Heckshire Theater was the original site for the Joseph Papp New York Shakespeare Festival, which continues its celebration each summer in Central Park. The free tickets remain, but now there is a line for them that stretches far onto the lawn beyond the Delacourt. I think there is good reason to believe that we will see the line grow this summer as the home-bound should be free at last.

Longtime Easton resident Mary Luongo taught English at Helen Keller Middle School and Joel Barlow High School and Humanities at Sacred Heart University.

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